Tag Archives: Poetry

Magical miniatures everywhere you turn

at New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show.

A smart novelist named Christopher Moore said, Children see magic because they look for it. Yes, especially on Christmas Eve. Today. If you want to conjure up A Visit From Saint Nicholas, by another writer named Moore, Clement Clark Moore, go to the New-York Historical Society (so genuine a place they kept the hyphen). They have both his desk and the original manuscript.

Here at NYBG you’ll have to make do with a perfect replica. All the New York icons are here. A Macy’s behemoth.

A diminutive Bethesda Fountain, the original installed in 1873, presented here in a small jewel of a Central Park.

Everything is hand crafted of natural materials: pine bark, black cherry, eucalyptus stems, grapevine, acorn caps, magnolia leaves and many more.

The trains range from the traditional locomotive to the cutesy ladybug.

Childish wonder prevails. Most people are rapt.

Some not so much.

I hear a father counseling a bored pre-teen daughter: Just take it in. Another grinch opines in a loud whisper: Is there an adults-only time slot? True, there are many puffy coats jostling up against each other in front of the more popular displays, and lots of fidgety kiddos. But most visitors are delighted to be out of the deep freeze and crowded in to the steamy Enid A. Haupt Observatory, marveling and posing.

I think I love the most the way some structures glow from within.

And of course finding my old favorites here. The New York Public Library, complete with its lions, Patience and Fortitude.

Because it is New York, where we tend to color outside the lines, locations outside the city limits can also be found here at the train show. Like Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s snuggery in Tarrytown, complete with a perfect little wisteria vine.

The George Washington Bridge, of course, but also, nestled beneath it, the Little Red Lighthouse.

Always something new. I notice a rendition of the Freedom Tower, as if the Freedom Tower was constructed of glass. What natural material was used to create this effect? Dragonfly spittle?

If you can drag your eyes away from the trains you’ll find some equally amazing plant life. Goeppertia insignis hails from Brazil. Ripe green smell of the rain forest.

A wonderful program started in 1992 in New York City. Called Poetry in Motion, it features brief poems by famous and not-so-famous writers posted in metropolitan subway cars. Poet Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate whose work manages to straddle both critical acclaim and popular appeal, has said, I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program. One of his poems, Grand Central, features a building here miniaturized.

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

At the train show, Grand Central is a standout. I kinda wish there was a tree stump large as this one framing the real magilla. That would be cool.

There are no subway cars here. I ask a Botanical Garden staffer to explain. The “MTA cars wouldn’t have the proper gauge to fit on the tracks,” he articulates before wishing me a Merry Christmas.

I don’t know why, if in this universe they can perfectly capture a vanished Coney Island, it’s not possible to produce a subway car with poetry in it.

Charles Simic also has contributed to Poetry in Motion.

Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.

Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.

The art of the train show manages to be both mundane and sublime. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. So do these small, intricate, perfect displays. What would New York be without its water towers? Look closely, they are here throughout.

By the way, if the holiday season finds you in need of poetic sustenance, you can make a toll-free call courtesy of the Poetry Society of America and hear the work of Pablo Neruda read aloud by Billy Collins. The number is (212) 202-5606. You can do it while standing in the cold at the New York Botanical Garden or in the steamy enclave where the Garden has perfectly reproduced itself.

Or just gaze in backlit windows of these sublimely silent tableaux.

You might relate to the following, The Moment, by Marie Howe, also from a subway car posting:

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
when,     nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe    half a moment
the rush of traffic stops. 
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Bye the bye, my New Year’s resolution for this as every year is to eliminate the word should from my vocabulary. Life becomes more magical. It’s tough to do, but I think worthwhile. You should do it too.


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Arlow Burdette Stout

had a great name, and also revolutionized our thinking about day lilies. Never thought much about Hemerocallis? The name Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words for “day” and “beautiful”.

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance. John Ruskin wrote that. I don’t believe that peacocks are useless however; nor are day lilies. I have been walking past a beautifully planted border of day lilies for the past month at Ellis Island, where the flowers are as diverse as the multitudes of immigrants that passed through over the years 1892 through 1954, when the facility closed. I get the feeling that many visitors just hustle past them every day in a rush to find their ancestors on the Wall of Honor, or to get a quick sandwich in the café before jumping on a ferry to Liberty Island. Everyone is in such a hurry, even on vacation.

Tens of thousands of cultivars exist. Arlow Stout alone produced over one hundred Hemerocallis hybrids, reawakening popular interest in the flower, which was introduced to America by European settlers—probably brought from Asia along the silk roads. By the 1800s they were naturalized in the U.S., and still what is called the “tawny” variety can be found springing up by the roadsides all over the country. Ancient Chinese paintings depict glowing orange day lilies.

It’s not actually a lily.

In the department of Harumphh: in 2009, under the APG III system, day lilies were removed from the family Liliaceae and assigned to the family Xanthorrhoeaceae, subfamily HemerocallidoideaeXanthorrhoeaceae was renamed in 2016 to Asphodelaceae in the APG IV system. Will someone wake me up when this is all sorted out?

Growing on long stems called scapes, flowers bloom for one day each. You can gather them, eat them, press them, present them to people you love. Hybridizers like our friend Stout like to fool around with properties like height or scent, ruffled edges, putting contrasting “eyes” in the center of a bloom, or creating an illusion of glitter called “diamond dust.”

Sylvia Plath also wrote about them, in a poem from 1962 called “Crossing the Water.” Stars open among the lilies./Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?/This is the silence of astounded souls.

But we don’t need such a hard sell. Their season is almost over. Go out and be agog over one, before their beauty sleep ’til next year.

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If integuments are the vital connections

between things, as Gil would have it, then it seems my course in the days since coming back to New York was about restoring some of those integuments, strengthening them.

I went to a few places I love. Driving south to Wave Hill on a winter Sunday is like visiting family, its mansions and gardens a boon, on a hill overlooking the Hudson.

If you can tear yourself away from the view of the Palisades through the pergola, pay homage to some of the old, old trees. Wave Hill’s Chinese elm bark looks more like rough cement.

The linden that was here when Mark Twain arrived in 1901 still reaches upward.

I always like the quote attributed to Twain by his daughter Clara about the Bronx estate: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”

Today it was quiet rather than blowy and you could notice a few details in the silence.

A witch hazel cultivar which burns in the cold air.

The first of the snow drops.

The bones of the Japanese maple.

My old friend the copper beech.

Which invites you to come closer and duck beneath its sinuous branches, the better to imagine all the people who have come before and recorded their visits.

I picked up a book when visiting my mother this month and found an old clipping carefully folded up inside its pages. The book’s author, brilliant critic Reginald H. Blyth, had first published Haiku in 1949, but this was the 1982 reissue.

Blyth began writing about Zen Buddhism while imprisoned in Japan as an enemy alien during WWII. By the time he died in 1964 he had released more than 20 volumes on Japanese Zen, English literature and the deep relationships he found between them.

My mother, the brilliant learner Betty Zimmerman, had been inspired to get the book based on that review.

She and my father spent her first married years in Japan. In 1982, she had recently received her masters in cultural studies at Manhattanville at Purchase, writing a thesis on Odilon Redon, the French symbolist painter.

She went to work at the Metropolitan Museum in the Eastern Arts department.

The Met has got to be the last changed environment in all of New York City. Or when it does change, it manages to seem as if it has always been like that. The skyline has changed of course, due to incursions of needle skyscrapers.

The windows overlooking Central Park capture a landscape that was created even before the museum opened there in 1880 and has been maintained in much the same way since.

 If you go not to the changing exhibits but the old guard, even more so. The Asian arts in particular are burnished by time. This Noguchi basalt “water stone” has been here forever — at least in my time frame, since the 1980s..

Some of the painted screens change but there will always be birds in flight in the Met’s collection, in this case mynah birds, by an artist of the Edo period.

Reginald Blyth talks about haiku not being just a poetic form but a way of life.

“Haiku record what Wordsworth calls those ‘spots of time,’ those moments which for some quite mysterious reason have a peculiar resonance.” The deluge of a waterfall would be one such moment, captured by Tanaka Raisho in 1917.

I totally get it. A hawk in the seconds before flight, in the late 1500s, by an artist you’ve never heard of. It doesn’t matter, all that matters is that beady-eyed moment.

Blyth goes on to say, “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of those things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

I also like a quote from the yellowed NYT book review from another of Blyth’s books: “The back of the picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and vulgar are all of infinite value.”

That is why I am touched by my mother’s scribbles on the repurposed bookmark also hidden in Haiku’s spine and never supposed to see the light of day again. The page numbers and opening words of certain haiku… ones she would have been considering, she tells me, for use on Christmas cards. I turn to page 27.

Mountains and rivers, the whole earth—

All manifest forth the essence of being.

Not actually haiku but a verse used by monks studying Zen in the monastery, according to Blyth. Think of the splash of pine at Wave Hill.

The mysterious shadow of the atlas cedar.

The essence of being is a phrase that reflects the integuments that exist, between my mother and myself, between Japanese scroll painting and poetry, between Mark Twain and the “hoarse song” of the wind, between all those who initialed the Wave Hill copper beech bark over the ages. The things that connect to other things.

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The Palisades

sag under their coat of snow while a  god’s eye floats above.

I’ve been hunkered down, distracted by the weather, researching my book about forests. To the process of book building I raise a toast: “Let be be finale of seem,” as Wallace Stevens put it in his poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

More interesting stuff tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and don’t subscribe, please go to my main page at jeanzimmerman.com and enter your email address. Every two or three days I will come winging in to greet you.

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Trees are winter poems

and, like written poetry, sometimes you must talk yourself into reading them. Lyndhurst, the estate near where I live, makes it easier, because its 67 park-like acres offer an arboricultural bounty. Forget the house –a gothic revival castle designed in 1838 by Alexander Jackson Davis, when romanticism reigned. (Where was Frank Lloyd Wright when we needed him?)

The place is known best as the familial headquarters of rapacious banker Jay Gould in the Gilded Age, and his daughter Helen added a bowling alley and immense greenhouse, the skeleton of which remains. Carriage roads with precisely wrought stone gutters.

The Old Croton Aqueduct cuts across the landscape, which might have been somewhat annoying to the residents of the mansion in the nineteenth century. But it was progress, and the pre-Gould-era occupants were civic minded. New York City must have pure water!

You can still follow the trail’s path up a rise.

In fact, that’s the only place you’re supposed to go off season, for some reason.

I have other plans. I have resolved to break more rules in 2020 and I think I won’t wait to set my intent.

Andrew Wyeth has an oft-quoted line: “I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show.”

Lyndhurst in winter is all bones. A stand of oak on closer inspection reveals itself to include a burr oak (you can call it a bur oak if you want to be ridiculous.) They have the mossiest, shaggiest caps of all acorns, a look that surely serves some dendrological purpose, like keeping from being eaten.

Look closely and see that there has been some living creature here.

I know an arborist who likes these oaks for “the deep lobes and lustrous green of the leaves.” Only visible in the imagination now, of course. “The very large acorns can be the size of golf balls, which gives this oak its Latin name…  Quercus macrocarpa is a slow grower that can become quite large in maturity. Better suited for parks than street trees due to its size and the size of the acorns.“ Exactly! Here at Lyndhurst it can really spread out.

Wyeth also said: “I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.”

Live bones. A slightly scary concept but one that I like. The magnolia looks like it’s already ready for a warmer season.

Wait a bit. Enjoy your dormancy. You can explode later.

An arboretum in all but name, Lyndhurst has a number of mammoth beech trees that is so large as to be almost unfair to the rest of the world’s estates. I know that Newport has its share also. The Preservation Society of Newport County has even established a beech tree nursery “to ensure the future of the iconic landscapes of the Newport Mansions.”

Magnificent is a word undeniably coined to describe European beeches.

Weeping bones. Easier for any arborist to ID some specimens after leaf-out than now, but a beech can’t fool you.

Strong emotion on display with statuary scattered about the grounds, which I suspect no one but myself has examined closely for some time.

Some of these carvings gave off a strong whiff of an earlier era, when sexuality had to be expressed clandestinely. It was only proper to reveal oneself in all Nature’s glory if you were a nymph of some kind.

We’re still squeamish about some things even going on 2020, like depicting the litter of scat all around the Lyndhurst estate – deer, of course, and goose, and – this. First to identify it (dog, bear?) gets a mention in these pages.

I don’t know the intended meaning of this image. I’m sure it had one when carved. Bacchus wiping the wine from his face?

But it reminds me of one of my very favorite poems, written by William Butler Yeats in 1892 (the Gould epoch at Lyndhurst, though it’s hard to believe he ever read it). This poem is a douzaine, meaning a 12-liner, and in it Yeats wears his heart on his sleeve for wild woman – Irish republican revolutionary and suffragist –Maud Gonne. She knew how to break rules and she knew how to break hearts. One good way is to find a poet to make you immortal. Wish I knew her.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

That’s what that little guy hiding his face in the statuary says to me, out in the beautiful dormant cold.

I took a burr acorn cap with me when I left. To quote Jay Gould: “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.”

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I’m tired of flowers

They’re too pretty. They distract you from all the miseries around you, inside you. They are beautiful effortlessly, which puts everybody to shame.

One of my favorite poems, Walking Around by Pablo Neruda, opens with these lines:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.

And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses

dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt

steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

He goes on in that vein for a while.  Then comes the line I’m thinking of, thinking of flowers:

Still it would be marvelous

to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily

So fresh flowers can be pretty outrageous, pretty powerful.

Sometimes I prefer the two dimensional.

That is still-life painter Eliot Hodgkin’s “May.” 

The scent almost wafts off of the nineteenth century Johan Laurentz Jensen’s clutch of lilacs.

It’s a relief sometimes to have flowers that stay safely on canvas.


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